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Fear and loathing in the County Legislature

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An air of jubilation swept through the chamber of the Monroe County Legislature in the final hour of November 12. Nineteen lawmakers from both parties had voted to override County Executive Jack Doyle's line-item veto of a bipartisan budget. The plan that passed raised the property tax rate almost 2.5 percent in order to restore some funding to heath, social service, and arts organizations facing big cutbacks under Doyle's budget proposal, which would not have raised taxes.

            Cheers erupted from the gallery among scores of citizens who'd spoken out against the cuts during a two-and-a-half hour public hearing earlier that evening. Lawmakers who crafted the bipartisan plan bore satisfied smiles. There were handshakes and pats on the back.

            But as victories go, this one rings hollow for many legislators who backed the bipartisan budget.

            Some Democrats fear their vote in favor of a tax increase will come back to haunt them in future runs for political office. Rumors that the Dems were set up by county Republican leaders have circulated widely in the wake of the vote. And legislators on both sides of the aisle who backed the bipartisan plan have grave doubts that the budget they passed will work, or actually be implemented next year.

            Previous projections predicted a 2003 budget deficit of as much as $65 million. And as the Democrats, in particular, point out, Doyle has the discretion not to spend money allocated to restore some cuts if the county's finances are pinched again next year.

            Passing the budget is only one small step, says Democratic legislator Ron Thomas. "The fact is, it doesn't mean anything unless there're some basic, fundamental, policy-changing decisions," he says.

            Some legislators "want to grandstand and talk about, 'Look how good I did with the county budget,'" Thomas continues. "It doesn't end there. You have not done anything unless you ensure that those dollars are spent the way they were intended to be spent, and that those savings that were predicted, that those things actually appear. If you don't monitor those things, we haven't done anything."

Chief among both Democrats' and Republicans' concerns is the question of whether $30 million in savings projected to result from a reorganization of county health and social service agencies will be realized in 2003.

            The bipartisan budget, which would restore $6.4 million in funding for health and human service agencies and various county programs, also sets aside $2 million to shore up the county's finances in the event that projection falls short. "That [shortfall] could happen," says Republican legislator Ray Santirocco, a key crafter of the bipartisan proposal, "and $2 million isn't a lot by any means."

            "Throughout this budget process, we had to kind of ignore the fact we just don't believe that the revenue figures and the savings figures are solid," says Democratic Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley, another key player. "I would be very surprised if, even with what we've done, we don't find ourselves six months down the line with Jack announcing that once again we've gone into deficit spending and we're back on the cutting floor again."

            The size of the reserve fund proved to be the only major sticking point in negotiations that melded the Democrats' plan with a proposal previously announced by a coalition of legislators affiliated with the new Independence Party caucus. The Dems' plan called for setting aside $500,000; the Indy proposal would have reserved $6 million.

            The size of the reserve "was a deal-breaker," says Santirocco, a member of the Indy caucus, "because I wouldn't give it up and, at one point, other people were not willing to support it... Some Democrats initially said, 'No, no, no, that's a bad idea. It's a slush fund. It's gonna get Doyle off the hook if [the reorganization] hits the rocks."

            Democratic legislator Jay Ricci was one of those opposed to the size of the Indy plan's reserve. "You want me to give Jack Doyle a $5 million savings account so that, three years from now [when County Legislature elections take place], he can tell everybody about what a weenie I am for raising taxes?"

            During negotiations within her caucus, Aldersley says, "it was tough for me to get people to say that they're going to set aside some money for a reserve fund when their programs are still going under-funded. For every penny I went down, I would lose a member, and for every penny I went up, I'd lose a member. What we came to is on a razor-thin edge."

            Ricci still doubts that the bipartisan budget is "a workable plan." But he says he supported it, in part, because forcing the Republicans to pass their budget --- and suffer the political consequences if it unraveled --- would hurt the community.

            "I didn't see any way out," Ricci says. "Maybe we hold out, we say, 'We're not going to agree to [Doyle's] budget, we're not going to come up with our own plan...' Frankly, we don't do business this way, because we care too much about the community, but we could have called their hand. We could have seen if they were bluffing."

"After I woke up the next morning, I said, 'You know what? I think we got had,'" Ricci says.

            "The whole night was really weird, how it was all orchestrated," another Democratic legislator commented off the record.

            The legislative session did play out in dramatic fashion. First, a plan put forth by the Republican leadership to restore some funding without raising taxes was defeated 13-16 --- two votes shy of the majority needed for passage. Republicans hold a 16-13 majority in the Lej, but three Republicans affiliated with the Indy caucus had joined all 13 Dems to craft the proposal that ultimately passed.

            After that proposal passed 16-13, the Lej went into a brief recess. The Republicans huddled in a private meeting, and Doyle, a Republican, disappeared into his office. When he emerged 15 minutes later to announce his veto, his staff passed out an official letter to the clerk of the legislature --- purportedly written by Doyle during that brief interval --- restating his long-held objection to a property tax increase. Attached were the three pages of the bipartisan budget proposal, with Doyle's line-by-line approval or rejection of 52 specific restorations, spending reductions, and revenue sources.

            When the Lej reconvened to consider Doyle's objections, three Republican legislators, who'd refused to support the bipartisan proposal less than an hour before, joined its 16 original backers to pass the plan 19-10 --- one vote more than was necessary to override the veto.

            "I think we were set up," Ricci says. "Why else would Doyle veto the budget that night, just to make sure we had the votes to override it?"

            "The reason I voted for it is because I was told that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, there were enough people for the override," Ricci continues.

            But how anyone could have been certain there'd be enough votes for an override is still a political mystery.

            Of the three Republicans who changed their minds late in the game, at least two claim they never told anyone of their intentions before their caucus met privately just before the vote.

            "I had not told anybody, because I didn't have any information available to me with regard to the veto," says Republican legislator Mike Hanna of Perinton. "I didn't know whether Jack was going to veto the whole thing, or veto a portion of it, or maybe veto none of it, with the exception of the tax increase. So I couldn't discuss what I was going to do prior to [the veto]."

            Pieter Smeenk, another Perinton Republican who voted for the override (Karla Boyce of Pittsford-Mendon was the third), says: "I never technically, or in my heart, supported the budget as amended by the bipartisan group. I voted for the override when I realized earlier in the evening that, procedurally, it was going to be Jack Doyle's proposed budget with a few amendments, or the bipartisan budget with the amendments."

            Smeenk also says he was unaware that either Hanna or Boyce would vote to override the veto prior to the Republicans' private meeting during the recess.

            Santirocco suspected Boyce would ultimately back the bipartisan plan, because she'd previously expressed concerns about cuts to social services. But "Mike surprised me," he says of Hanna, and Santirocco says he'd "not talked to Pieter directly" about his vote.

            Aldersley says she was also in the dark. As the roll call on the override vote was announced, "I was pinching myself," she says. "I just had no idea."

Several legislators privately confirmed that as early as last August, when Doyle announced his sweeping cuts, efforts were undertaken to create a coalition of legislators who are either term-limited, or who represent urban districts, to support a tax increase that would restore some funding.

            The idea: to protect needy citizens (most of whom reside in the city) affected by the cuts, while protecting the political futures of those county legislators who can run for their seats again in 2005.

            As it turned out, all six Republicans who voted to override the veto are term-limited. However, among the Democrats, only seven of the 13 who voted to raise taxes are term-limited. Ricci and Aldersley are among those Dems who represent suburban districts and can run for another term. (Democratic legislator Mitch Rowe --- who represents parts of Greece, Gates, and Irondequoit --- can also run again in 2005.)

            Despite the fact six Republicans voted for the bipartisan budget, Ricci says, "Basically, the Democrats raised taxes and the Republicans didn't. That's the way they're going to play it in the next election."

            "The thing that made me the most suspicious," Ricci says of the budget session, was that county Republican Party Chairman Steve Minarik was in attendance, "and he seemed pretty happy."

            "I noticed what Jay noticed," Aldersley says of Minarik's presence. "I think that Jay has a point. And in point of fact, the administration is delighted to have the extra funding and to have our side take the political heat.

            "So be it," she continues. "It was still the right thing to do."

            Minarik did not return calls seeking comment.

            Minarik's Democratic counterpart, county party chairman Ted O'Brien, expects Republicans will use Democrats' pro-tax-increase votes against them in future campaigns with some success. "The unfortunate reality is that, for the voter who follows this stuff in passing, the sense of urgency that really permeated that County Legislature call is gonna be lost," he says.

            However, O'Brien dismisses rumors that the Dems were set up to vote for a politically damaging tax increase, while allowing Doyle and the Republican leadership to maintain their record of voting to keep taxes stable.

            "To the extent that it's characterized as a bipartisan budget, I think that reinforces the idea that this is not just an attempt to save Jack Doyle," O'Brien says. "Clearly, one of the things that Jack Doyle's not going to be able to say is that during his administration there was never an increase in taxes, because now there's going to be. And he can't blame it on the Democrats, because it was a bipartisan effort."

            "The more immediate race is next year's county executive race," O'Brien says. "And I think we may have established that the Doyle administration record is one that ultimately was willing to produce a county budget that would have gutted this community and set us back a lot."

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